Saturday, February 27, 2016

No Easy Answers: A Critical Examination of the MFA's Kimono Crisis

Ya'll know me, I have no problem blasting racist malarkey on this here blog. Subjectively, I don't like to see human suffering and I feel that racist things produce a lot of that, I like people to be happy and comfortable and I'm a firm believer that the more people experiencing happiness and comfort the better the world is. Objectively, I feel that racism is a symptom of ignorance and a distinct lack of critical thinking which doesn't serve any useful purpose. Racist claims are not based on empirical evidence or objective truths and sweeping generalizations are by their very nature, logical fallacies. In other words, on a macro level, I think racism is unequivocally stupid, useless and causes unnecessary pain and anguish and holds us back as a species from achieving really cool collective feats of awesomeness -- which is why it pisses me off so much.

The town hall in which the director of Boston's Museum of Fine Arts and a number of prominent figures in the Asian-American community discussed the problematic nature of the exhibit.
That being said, it always takes me a while to write articles about racially sensitive topics because I want to be absolutely sure that I understand the whole situation (or as much as possible), I want to make sure my feelings on the subject don't change based on new evidence, and/or that the thing I'm actually harping at is, in fact, racist and I'm not jumping the gun so to speak. I'm also a white cis-gendered, heterosexual male so there's that too. I quite literally have to take time to check my privilege to make sure I'm not just coming at this from the wrong angle. Do I merely not understand a racially sensitive issue because I'm not a person of colour and have no personal steak or experience in the matter? or am I actually an objective party who has weighed all sides of the argument and is making an informed and educated assessment free from personal bias (as much as one can be free of such a thing)? That's the question I ask myself before I write articles like the one I'm about to write. So here we go . . .     

Claude Monet's La Japonaise
Back in July the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston hosted an exhibit that many found problematic in which a lesser-known Claude Monet painting of his wife, Camille Monet wearing a kimono, and posing with a folded-out paper fan in a faux geisha pose, titled La Japonaise was exhibited in a prominent location in the museum. The exhibit came with a side-gimmick, "Kimono Wednesdays" which allowed museum patrons to wear a kimono fashioned, by traditional kimono makers in Japan, after the one featured in the painting. "Channel your inner Camille Monet. . ." the exhibit read, inviting museum-goers to come and try it on. The exhibition also featured a "spot-light" talk, presumably by some specialist, titled "Claude Monet, Flirting with the Exotic".

A promotional Picture for Kimono Wednesdays.
Shortly after the exhibit opened numerous people, many being members of the local Asian-American community, took to social media, and media in general, to criticize the exhibit and the MFA for exoticizing, fetishizing and advocating the appropriation of East Asian culture. A tumblr page was created to facilitate exposure of the situation, "Stand Against Yellow Face" which was later renamed to "Decolonize Our Museums". Activists showed up in the museum with signs with such slogans reading "Not your Asian fetish" and other considerably longer messages referencing systemic racism in America, the white colonial gaze, objectification of Asian women, orientalism, and even the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II (just to name a few). The situation got even more complicated when a counter-protest was organized, largely by other members of the Asian-American community who thought the original protesters were being unreasonable and suppressing the sharing and appreciation of culture, making for a post-modern liberal nightmare.

A group of protesters denouncing the exhibit.
Originally the museum made slight modifications to the exhibit to placate the protesters, but the movement persisted and eventually Kimono Wednesday was removed outright. The discontent continued until the exhibit wrapped. Why am I writing this now? The town hall, dealing with the incident was held recently in which the director of the MFA made a formal apology to all in attendance after a lengthy Q & A session with a panel made up of the director himself and a number of specialists and advocates from the Asian-American community from various sides of the argument. The town hall was conducted in a very interesting manner that I think spells progress for race-relations in general, wherein the director of the MFA was forced to patiently listen to the grievances of those in attendance over the exhibit. I'm all for that, and it probably should have happened sooner. However. . . 

When this incident was playing out back in the summer, I was all over it. I read article after article, followed the tumblr page, trying to make sense of what was going on. I had been to the MFA some years ago and was impressed. Initially I braced myself to be angry as well when I saw that, extremely orientalist painting of Camille Monet. I was getting ready to launch into one of my usual socially-charged tirades about how shitty racism and cultural appropriation are. I was going to condemn the MFA for being ignorant and short-sighted and angering all these already marginalized people.

One of the counter-protesters advocating the return of Kimono Wednesdays.
But as I researched more and more, the arguments that activists were launching at the exhibit, it seemed to me, were becoming less and less relevant to the specific nature of the content of the exhibit itself. On this went to the point where I, armed with all my studies in orientalism and distaste for the fetishization of things foreign, could no longer find fault with the exhibit even in it's unmodified form. 

"Uwwhaaaat!? But Alex, this exhibit is heinous in how it propagates the white colonial gaze, the fetishization of Asian culture and totally ignores the history of marginalization and outright discrimination of the Asian diaspora in the United States! It's racist! I thought you were an ally!"

A protester with a strong message. But, is the white couple wearing kimono really guilty of all that? 
But that's the thing, I'm not convinced that this exhibit, in and of itself, was doing all that stuff and so this whole debate and even it's outcome just never really sat well with me. This is why I held off writing about it until now, because I just couldn't decide how a I felt about it. I was torn. To be sure this whole issue is right up my ally, based on what I've written about on this blog and in school thus far, but I would be so bold as to say that the vitriol directed at the MFA and this exhibit itself was misdirected, in my humble opinion. On with explanations about why I think what I think. . .   

Emile Villa's La Japonaise
What Japonisme was. . . 

The the dubious painting is an example of Japonisme, a somewhat odd aesthetic phenomenon that was en-vogue in France in the 1870's. It resulted in all kinds of odd behaviour such as installing "Japanese rooms" full of faux Japanese motifs, complete with tatami-mats. In such rooms French people would play with tea sets in kimono-esque clothing, essentially pretending to be Japanese. Now, by today's standards, a bunch of white French people pretending to be Japanese people by appropriating a bunch of material culture is pretty messed up and would fall under the cultural appropriation umbrella to be sure (I think nowadays, we would call them weeaboos). However, and as I'm sure most of you can guess, in the 1870's there wasn't exactly an abundance of reliable information about Japan available in French -- I'd wager that you could count the amount of textbooks on one hand. There also wasn't a significantly large population of Japanese nationals or immigrants living in France at the time that one could attempt to associate with. Therefore, the means to meaningfully engage with Japan and the Japanese simply was not available to most people in that space, at that time as a one-way trip to Japan, meant a costly, potentially risky, months-long voyage. 

Alfred Wordsworth Thompson's La Japonaise
Is Japonisme cultural appropriation? 

Japonisme is cultural appropriation in the purest sense -- it is quite literally the appropriation of one people's material culture by another. However, I believe that the conditions of France in 1870's make it impossible to classify Japonisme as cultural appropriation insofar as the term is used today, especially in the space of the United States. Now I understand that the definition of cultural appropriation is in constant contention, but I have seen a definition, the use of which seems to be very wide-spread in relation to U.S. geo-politics at present. It is that cultural appropriation happens when a dominant cultural majority elevates and subsequently co-opts elements from a marginalized minority while continuing to marginalize the minority they've co-opted from. Therefore, for cultural appropriation to occur in all it's heinousness, the presence of a marginalized minority would need to be present to appropriate from. In France, in the 1870's this was not the case, there was no significantly large, permanent and marginalized Japanese population in France in the 1870's. Japanese people did travel to France for education and "cultural experience" but many stayed no more than a few years after which they returned home.              

Mary Brewster Hazelton's La Japaonaise
The "exotic" problematic . . .

The lack of ability to engage with Japan would have rendered Japan as an exotic place to most French people at the time by the very definition of the word -- something strange, unusual or different, not native. Beyond that however, exotic also denotes a kind of mysteriousness or a lack of ability for something to be understandable. It's my understanding that the reason why the word "exotic" is so problematic at present is because we now have a wealth of information on places, previously thought exotic. If you want to learn about China, for example, you can just read a book, you can watch a video in which actual Chinese people introduce aspects of their own country, you can attend a seminar or a class, you can talk to Chinese people (I mean people who are culturally Chinese -- not merely ethnically) about their experiences, it's easy. Ignorance is now a choice, so being content to sit back and refer to something as merely exotic can be seen as laziness at best or self-induced ignorance at worst. The word is not only inappropriate but the information age has rendered "exotic" somewhat of a misnomer. How can something be exotic if the tools for understanding it are constantly at your fingertips? That being said, to Claude Monet in the 1870's and indeed to many of his contemporaries, Japan would surely have been exotic for lack of information and wearing a kimono or drinking green tea, would likely have been thought of as "flirting with the exotic" to some degree. Therefore, the seemingly problematic title of the accompanying talk actually makes sense within context of the exhibit. I mean context is everything . . . isn't it?

Leon Francois Comerre's La Japonaise
Is japonisme a colonial phenomenon? 

Yes and no. Broadly, you could argue it is insofar as colonialism is related to intercontinental trade and that the French had colonies in South East Asia and their dealings with Japan could be seen as part of their colonial legacy -- as the reason they had such a large presence in Asia in the first place. On the other hand the French never attempted to colonize Japan specifically. The influx of Japanese goods to France was mostly the result of the Meiji government opening the country and the formation of a bilateral agreement between the governments of both countries which had French military experts training Japan's armed forces in "modern warfare". It also might be worth mentioning that Japan itself was a colonial power for almost fifty-years, took over much of North and South East Asia and did all sorts of heinous things all while holding a seat at the League of Nations.    

Again, strong accusations launched at the MFA, but to what extent can Japonisme be linked to American imperialism? An interesting question to be sure.

Is trying on a kimono in a museum cultural appropriation?

Fundamentally I don't think so, the exhibit was not barring certain patrons from trying on the kimono. Anyone could try it on and strike Camille's pose (or whatever) regardless of ethnicity. The event was ostensibly inclusive and the kimono itself was made by real Japanese artisans prior to the launch of the exhibit. Trying on a piece of clothing is not intrinsically a case of cultural appropriation, but striking a stereotypical pose with a paper fan with no real knowledge of the historical significance of the pose and clothing itself? Could be (more on that later). After all, people didn't take issue with Iggy Azalea merely because she was rapping. It was rapping with a black Houston accent while obviously not being black or from Houston while being unabashedly racist on her twitter feed, all while being celebrated by the mainstream American music industry that branded her problematic.        
So then what's the problem with the exhibit?

If this exhibit is not about Japan or about Japanese-American experience but simply about Japonisme, this quirky, somewhat obscure, European French fad that probably didn't last much longer than a decade, what's the problem? Why do so many Asian-Americans insist on including this weird French thing into the broader global colonial narrative? Aren't they just overreacting? Isn't this just a knee-jerk reaction to a white woman in a kimono!? Aren't they the racist ones!?!?

By today's standards Japonisme is very problematic, but it sort of still happens . . . Katie Perry at the 2013 AMA's.  
Well, my friends, I'm a firm believer in the old axiom, where there's smoke, there's fire. In my opinion the problem with the exhibit is not so much the exhibit itself but more that it was displayed in the United States of America. Now I'm not America-bashing here, but anyone who knows anything about American history knows that it's full of racial tension -- yes, the same can be said about any country really, but it doesn't make it any less problematic. In America's case, there were several intervals in which Asian-Americans specifically were not only marginalized socially, but also politically and publicly targeted outright (a lot of this happened in Canada too). Rail-road slave labour, the immigration exclusion acts, the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II -- and that's just the stuff you can read about in High School textbooks. This is to say nothing of the myriad hate-crimes and violence endured by smaller groups and individuals throughout American history.

There was once a time, when signs like these were fairly common and our governments enacted policies to make immigration very costly for East Asian peoples.  
Now if this marginalization and discrimination was all in the past, well then you could probably build a stronger case for these protesters simply being a bunch of butt-hurt shit-disturbers. However, it's not that simple is it? Discrimination and marginalization against Asian-Americans continues to this day usually in a much less overt way (although Donald Trump is breaking this trend -- of being less overt, that is). The evidence is all around us. How many Asian-American singers were featured on the Grammy's a few weeks ago? We don't have the "one-drop rule" here in Canada, I'm talking about fully genealogically Asian Asian-Americans . . . not many right? I would offer more examples but you can just look at my older posts, or better yet, go check out Angry Asian Man or Re-appropriate, or Hyphen Magazine and hear it from the horse's mouth. Many of these folks put up with a lot of crap. Large groups of people don't typically come together to complain about something if there really is nothing to complain about . . . I mean that makes sense right!? Protests usually take place because there is a thing that exists that is making many people unhappy. Makes sense to me!

The other thing that I must point out is that many of the protesters were not advocating closing the exhibit outright, but adding context to make it more obvious that Japonisme is this thing that is far removed from the reality of Japanese (or Japanese diasporic experience). Yes, Japonisme isn't so much about Japan (and even less about Asian-American experience) than it is about a quaint segment of the French upper-class, but if the MFA is not making this fact obvious, well then it makes sense sense for people to take issue with the exhibit. I'm still flabbergasted by the frequency with which I encounter North Americans (and not just white North Americans) who have this extremely orientalist and colonialist view that Asia is still this magical, alien, highly exploitable world, full of effeminate men and submissive women that prostrate themselves in the presence of whiteness that is backwards and in need of guidance of some sort (or something not far off). Many of these people have fantasies which they project onto Asia and Asian-people. Many also project them on to Asian-Americans as well, and if these views are incorrect and insulting in the East Asian context, then they are even more insulting to Americans whose parents or grandparents just so happen to have originated from those spaces.

Racist graffiti from a case in San Francisco back in September. While not as common as it once was, the fact that this is still happening in any capacity is as awful as it is ridiculous.  
For comparison, I once watched a video about a gay man explaining his reasoning for boycotting the film adaptation of the famous science fiction novel Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card that came out a few years ago. Ender's Game is widely considered to be a modern classic of the genre and happens to be a book I quite like. Orson Scott Card, however, is a blatant and outspoken homophobic who has no problem publicly denouncing the homosexual community. The speaker in the video explained that he didn't care if the film or the story it was based on were excellent works, but that he was sick of prominent figures denouncing the gay community. I paraphrase "Let's say there's a famous sandwich shop in your area and you see all these customers enjoying these delicious looking sandwiches from that shop. Now imagine if every-time you went to that shop and put your money on the counter -- the same amount everyone else pays -- they gave you, and only you a literal shit sandwich simply because of who you are. How would that make you feel? Basically, I'm tired of being expected to swallow shit sandwiches and I don't want to support those who expect me to swallow them." Ender's Game as a piece of literature does not promote homophobia or denounce homosexuals but within the larger context of gay rights in the United States, that it is written by someone who vehemently opposes those rights is problematic and cannot be ignored by many individuals within that marginalized community.

I've always liked Gwen Stefani as an artist, but remember that time she used to hang out with that human-prop entourage of Asian women who were (so I've read) contractually obligated not to speak on camera? Yeah . . . I mean this wasn't that long ago.
It's a similar dynamic in the case of the MFA's exhibit. Whether or not the exhibit is actually promoting orientalism, colonialism or cultural appropriation is not really the point. The point is that Asian-Americans live in a country in which they are frequently under-represented or mis-represented in their media, wherein prominent non-Asian-American figures play dress-up and appropriate or even straight out mis-represent the culture of their ancestors (think Katie Perry's "Japan inspired" number at 2013 American Music Awards, Avril Lavigne's Hello Kitty video, Coldplay and Rihanna's Princess of China video, Gwen Stefanie's fetishistic Harajuku fascination etc.), wherein they were historically and are currently marginalized, objectified and fetishized in everything from Saturday morning cartoons to serialized literary fiction. I know from growing up alongside and listening to many of these people's woes for years, that they have to deal with the socio-cultural backlash and subsequent environment that all this orientalist discourse produces on a daily basis and many of them, as I understand, are extremely tired of it. In other-words, they too are tired of being fed shit sandwiches.

Remember that time when Hollywood adapted Memoirs of Geisha, a not-very-historically-accurate story of a geisha written by a non-Japanese person and instead of casting Asian-American actors in prominent roles, they opted to import celebrities from China to star in a film about Japanese people which only had two Japanese people in it? Get's more messed up the more you think about it.  
So while I don't see any inherent issues in the MFA's exhibit on Japonisme and feel that a lot of the anger and vitriol directed at it's content is misguided, I also can't fault a lot of these protesters for pouncing on the exhibit in the manner they did. It just looks so much like all the other crap they have had to deal with up till now and I'd imagine in the minds of the non-Asian, non-Asian-American museum patrons, this exhibit likely reproduced and perhaps confirms a lot of their assumptions about the "mysterious east" being "mysterious". If they showed this exhibit in Paris or even Tokyo it likely would have been a non-issue. America's socio-political climate, coupled with the colonial nature of a lot of western Museum collections (i.e. the MFA boasts a rather large East Asian section full of impressive artefacts, which is well curated, but how do you suppose they got such artefacts in the first place?) and the racially problematic nature of using ethnic dress for "dress-up" (i.e. when non-ethnically Asian peoples, regardless of culture, wear ethnic Asian clothes they are often thought of as being progressive but when ethnically Asian peoples, regardless of culture wear ethnically Asian clothes, they are thought of as being regressive) you get some rather negative reactions. Simply put the MFA's exhibit is a victim of America's social climate, and that's kind of a tragedy.

So there you have it. It's complicated and tragic and it should make you mad or should at least provoke some thought. We do, however, have the power to change this, and wouldn't that be nice if your children's children could go see an exhibit on Japonisme in the United States sans protesters and simply chuckle at this quaint obsession of the past? I think it would. But to do that we need to engage these problems instead of ignoring them. Thankfully that's not what happened here.

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